The Cable News Afterlife

Symone Sanders
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty
Dylan Byers
January 12, 2022

The media industry is always going through stages of upheaval and restructuring, especially in the fallow period after a presidential election, when cable news networks recalibrate their politics and loose-in-the-saddle talent begin to make moves. Nevertheless, the three large cable news networks made programming announcements of varying importance and magnitude this week that struck me as harbingers for the future of each network, and thus of American television news itself. 

Fox News tapped Jesse Watters, the infamous highly-coiffured ambush interviewer-turned-gleeful mocker of liberals on The Five, to serve as host of its pivotal 7 p.m. hour. Meanwhile, MSNBC announced that Democratic strategist Symone Sanders, a former Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris advisor, would host a weekend program on the network’s linear channel and anchor another show on one of its streaming services. And CNN, which has been rolling out new CNN+ shows at an increasingly rapid clip, added NPR alum Audie Cornish to a streaming roster that will be populated as much with cooking and travel shows hosted by the likes of Alison Roman and Eva Longoria as with hard news programs hosted by the likes of Chris Wallace and Kate Bolduan.

Each move follows an established pattern: Fox News, an unabashedly right-wing network (albeit with many independent and even Democratic viewers), is doubling down on its very successful strategy of conservative and anti-liberal programming; MSNBC, an unabashedly left-wing network, is doubling down on its less-proven strategy of progressive and anti-conservative programming; and somewhere closer to the middle, though still to the left of center, CNN is demonstrating that alongside its recent anti-Trump tenor it maintains a commitment to journalism and lifestyle programming that appeals to a well-educated liberal elite. (The New York Times, by the way, has largely charted this path—demonstrating through Cooking, Games, Serial, Wirecutter and, most recently, its $550 million acquisition of The Athletic, that lifestyle content converts in a paid ecosystem.)